Envoys push for Gaza truce before Ramadan starts next week

Envoys push for Gaza truce before Ramadan starts next week
Envoys push for Gaza truce before Ramadan starts next week

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Nevin Al Sukari - Sana'a - GAZA, March 7 — Envoys pushed on with efforts for a Gaza truce and hostage release deal in Cairo talks yesterday, hoping to halt nearly five months of fighting with days to go before Ramadan.

US President Joe Biden had urged Hamas to accept a ceasefire plan with Israel before the Muslim fasting month begins, which could be as early as Sunday depending on the sighting of the crescent moon.

As negotiators in Egypt sought to overcome tough stumbling blocks, deadly fighting again rocked Gaza where the UN warns famine looms and desperate crowds have stopped and looted food aid trucks.

Dire shortages of food and water amid the devastating Gaza war sparked by Hamas’s October 7 attack have killed at least 18 people, said the health ministry in the Hamas-controlled Palestinian territory.

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Gazans were waiting to collect bags of flour outside an office of the UN agency for Palestinian refugees, UNRWA, in Rafah, now home to nearly 1.5 million Palestinians, most of them displaced by the war.

“The flour they provide is not enough,” said displaced man Muhammad Abu Odeh. “They do not provide us with sugar or anything else except flour.”

Another displaced Gazan, Belal al-Sharawi, said some people had been selling their flour parcels to be able to afford vegetables.

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“They cannot consume only flour,” he told AFP.

Dire shortages of food and water amid the devastating war have killed at least 18 people. — AFP pic

Biden on Tuesday called on the Palestinian Islamist militant group to accept the truce plan brokered by US, Qatari and Egyptian mediators, saying “it’s in the hands of Hamas right now”.

The proposed deal would pause fighting for “at least six weeks”, see the “release of sick, wounded, elderly and women hostages” and allow for “a surge of humanitarian assistance”, the White House said.

One known sticking point centres on an Israeli demand for Hamas to hand it a list of the about 100 hostages believed to still be alive — a task Hamas says it is unable to complete while bombing continues.

The group said in a statement it had “shown the required flexibility with the aim of reaching an agreement”, insisting on a complete halt to the fighting.

Biden stressed that “if we get into circumstances where this continues to Ramadan, Israel and Jerusalem could be very, very dangerous”.

Stumbling blocks

In past years, violence has flared during Ramadan in annexed east Jerusalem’s Al-Aqsa mosque compound — Islam’s third-holiest site and Judaism’s most sacred, known to Jews as the Temple Mount.

Hamas has urged Muslims to flock there in great numbers, as they do every year, while some Israeli far-right politicians have urged restrictions.

Israel’s government said on Tuesday that Muslim worshippers would initially be allowed to the site “in similar numbers” as in recent years, but that this would be followed by a weekly “situation assessment”.

The Gaza war broke out after Hamas launched their attack on southern Israel that resulted in about 1,160 deaths, most of them civilians, according to an AFP tally based on official Israeli figures.

Hamas also took around 250 hostages. Israel believes 99 of them remain alive in Gaza and that 31 have died.

Israel’s retaliatory offensive has killed at least 30,717 people, mostly women and children, according to the Gaza health ministry.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has vowed to push on with the campaign to destroy Hamas, before or after any truce deal, while Hamas has demanded a permanent stop to fighting.

In the latest combat, the army said Israeli forces raided multi-storey buildings in the southern city of Khan Yunis, where they “apprehended terrorists and located weapons”.

Earlier the military said several gunmen were killed in a helicopter strike on the city.

Food trucks looted

While the war has reduced vast stretches of Gaza to a wasteland of bombed-out buildings and rubble, the siege has sparked a humanitarian disaster for its 2.4 million people.

Hunger has reached “catastrophic levels” in the north, the UN World Food Programme has warned.

“Children are dying of hunger-related diseases and suffering severe levels of malnutrition,” it said, with the latest victim according to the Gaza health ministry being a 15-year-old girl who died at Al-Shifa Hospital in Gaza City.

Ministry spokesman Ashraf al-Qudra said “the famine in northern Gaza has reached lethal levels” and could claim thousands of lives unless Gaza receives more aid and medical supplies.

More than 100 people were reported killed in bloody chaos last week when thousands of people swarmed aid trucks. Gaza officials blamed the deaths on Israeli gunfire, while the army insisted most were trampled or run over.

Another truck convoy was diverted by Israeli troops within Gaza late Tuesday and then stopped by “a large crowd of desperate people who looted the food”, said the WFP.

Jordanian, US and other planes have repeatedly airdropped food into Gaza.

But WFP deputy chief Carl Skau said that “airdrops are a last resort and will not avert famine”.

Washington has stepped up pressure on Israel to alleviate the suffering, a message echoed by British Foreign Secretary David Cameron.

“People are dying of hunger. People are dying of otherwise preventable disease,” Cameron told the House of Lords ahead of a visit by Israeli war cabinet member Benny Gantz.

Cameron said that, as Israel is “the occupying power... it is responsible and that has consequences, including in how we look at whether Israel is compliant with international humanitarian law”.

Israel, which has recalled its UN envoy in a sign of growing tensions, said the Security Council should “designate Hamas immediately as a terrorist organisation” and impose sanctions on it.

Government spokesman Eylon Levy also demanded “a fierce condemnation” of sexual violence committed during the Hamas attack, after a UN report found “reasonable grounds to believe” there had been instances of rape on October 7. — AFP

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